The Peace Corps, one of President John F. Kennedy's enduring legacies, was launched in Ghana in 1961. Nearly a half century later, the corps is still going strong in the West African country, with volunteers involved in teaching, health and sanitation training, natural resource management and small business development.
"The Peace Corps was born in America, but learned to walk in Ghana," Peace Corps director for Ghana Michael Koffman told America.gov.
The first batch of volunteers to go abroad, 52 of them, stepped off a plane in Accra on August 30, 1961. Those young, idealistic Americans had heeded Kennedy's call to serve in his inaugural address: "And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."
Volunteers in 1961 were assigned to education and literacy projects. In the 1970s and 1980s, the scope of work expanded to teaching math, science, business, and French in secondary schools, as well as providing special education for the mentally disabled, teacher training, and agricultural technology -- "a wide, wide range" of projects, in Koffman's words.
Despite coups and other political upheavals, the Peace Corps has maintained an uninterrupted presence in Ghana, a relationship rare among developing countries.
"Ghana has proven to be a stable place," Koffman said, "even when Ghanaians were working out internal issues. The government and people of Ghana have always treated volunteers warmly, and their safety has never been threatened. Ghana has always cherished its relationship with the Peace Corps. As a result, it has been getting stronger and stronger."
Ghana's growing political maturity, evidenced by the election in December 2008 that brought John Atta Mills to the Ghanaian presidency, has contributed to that relationship. "The election happened gracefully, without violence," Koffman said. "It shows Ghana is a peaceful, forward-looking country." The December election was the fifth peaceful transfer of presidential power and the second time that an opposition candidate has won.
When President Obama visits Ghana in July, 132 volunteers will be at work around the country, with another 63 new arrivals completing in-country training. Forty percent of the volunteers in Ghana are assigned to middle schools and high schools, teaching science and computer technology. "Interest in computers is very, very high. American young people have a lot to offer in teaching computer skills," Koffman said. The Peace Corps also has volunteers trained in sign language teaching visual arts in a school for the deaf.
In the natural resource management program, Koffman highlighted the work of helping Ghanaians cultivate, harvest and market moringa trees, whose leaves have high nutritional value.
In the health and sanitation sector, volunteers spread awareness of HIV/AIDS and malaria and how to avoid the diseases. Often they travel from village to village on bicycles, meeting people and giving presentations under coconut trees. "The opportunities present themselves in many shapes and times. We tell the volunteers to work with who you can, when you can, wherever you can," Koffman said.
To promote small business development, volunteers have been teaching villagers to start savings clubs by accepting contributions of as little as $1 per week and building the total available for short-term loans. "If a person takes out a small loan and repays it, then money circulates around the village, and that has an extraordinary effect," Koffman said.
A MATURE RELATIONSHIP
In the nearly half century that Ghana and the Peace Corps have been working together, the Peace Corps has changed, as has the host country.
One of the main changes is that the corps recruits more elderly volunteers now than in the early years, although the basic traits of generosity and zest for adventure apply across the generations. Last year, Ghana had the oldest serving volunteer, 85-year-old Ralph Bernstein, who taught biology, chemistry and physics in a Ghanaian high school.
When Ron Tschetter was Peace Corps director from 2006 to 2008, he launched an initiative to boost the ranks of volunteers aged 55 or older from 5 percent to 15 percent. Although Bernstein has left Ghana, volunteers in their 60s and 70s remain there, complementing the efforts of the younger volunteers. Tschetter said there are tens of millions of Americans born after World War II who are retiring in good health and are eager to contribute to a better world. Many have said they joined the Peace Corps in their later years because they never forgot President Kennedy's original call to step forward and serve.
"Older volunteers can't match the energy of the young ones, but they have the experience to get so much done without wasted movement. They are just as effective, if not more effective, especially in a place like Ghana where age is revered," Koffman said. "The older volunteers lend perspective that allows younger volunteers to be more successful."